To all those who wished me luck -- thank you! And now I'm going to watch some movies, make pasta with R., and pretend for a few days longer that the students aren't coming back to Collegeville.
Last night I dreamed that I showed up for my defense wearing cutoff shorts and a t-shirt instead of the presentable black shirtdress I'm planning to wear, and I had to arrange alternate airport transportation for R., and I was very anxious. But I also dreamed that my outside committee member asked a big meta-question and the others started arguing about it and I jumped in and said something that made them nod in agreement. So maybe Freud was right about academic anxiety dreams functioning as a kind reassurance for the dreamer.
The odd thing, considering the general consensus that professor-types are mostly frumps, is that some of my friends in the English Ph.D. program are quite stylish. M. always looks elegant and polished, T. has a great eye for vintage clothing and sews some of her own clothes, and S. has an awe-inspiring ability to make virtually any outfit work (not to mention an awe-inspiring ability to pick out clothes for other people; she helped me find my MLA interview suit, which, if I may say so, is rather dashing).
The Chronicle ran an article on academic fashion several years ago, which points out that one's rank in the profession has a lot to do with one's wardrobe choices. The tenured and famous can get away with necktie skirts (Jane Gallop) and electric-blue suits (Michael Bérubé). But the unknown job candidate and the junior faculty member are advised by Ms. Mentor to dress to fit in, not to be flamboyant. And this is regrettable. The MLA convention could use a little flamboyance amid all the earth tones and navy blue.
"Haven't you ever been in love, then?"
"When I was younger," she says, "I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love, yes." (David Lodge, Nice Work, 210)
I think it's more likely that many of us (I'm speaking in particular of literature scholars here, because that's my field) love our subject matter, and were drawn into academic criticism because of that. And I'm not opposing book-love to theory, either; one of my current favorite scholarly articles is a very short piece by Jonathan Culler (who appeared in my job-market nightmare -- go figure) about how we love poetry because it manages to imprint itself in us, even when we find it embarrassing to have to defend our affection for it:
"To love literature is not to admire its best representatives but, in some measure, to be possessed by it, to have lodged in you, as minor involuntary obsessions, some of its more ordinary moments -- not neccessarily the most beautiful or the deepest. ... Might we say that 'love of literature' is our name for the relation to poems that seduce us but that we find sentimental and embarrassing, hard to defend? Love does not require that we approve, only that we were once taken." -- Jonathan Culler, "Lace, Lance, and Pair," Profession 94, 6.
To which I say, that's exactly how I respond to poetry. And, academic career or no academic career, I don't want to give up those habits of reading and being possessed.
I'm slowly filling up a notebook with rambling prose snippets and quotations about book-love, which I initially envisioned as a quasi-essay in fragments, a kind of Lover's Discourse for bookworms. I think it has to do in part with the fact that my decision to leave academia felt a lot like a breakup (frighteningly similar, in fact: I even found myself thinking in phrases like "I'm just not happy anymore" and "This isn't working out" and "I think academia and I need to spend some time apart"), and it was either write something to commemorate the parts of the scholarly life that I still love, or mope around making mix tapes and eating ice cream. If it shows signs of going anywhere, I may post bits of it here.
(Footnote: Erin O'Connor is working on a project about "scholarly love," whose final section examines the role of the "marriage plot" and the "language of love" within the academic field of English literature. She plans to argue that " like the Victorian heroine who sacrifices social position and familial approval to be with her man, we are socialized to prove our 'love' for literature by tolerating the financial hardship, the uncertain future, and the social disrepute that so often comes with contemporary academic life." I'm looking forward to seeing how this project turns out. For more on the language of love in academia, see this Invisible Adjunct post on marriage metaphors, and this one about abusive relationships with the profession.)
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Johnson and the tenure fiasco. I could post at length about the depressing implications of this whole affair: for instance, that one can be hailed as the perfect professor and still lose out at the tenure game, and that perhaps this case has been so publicized because it provides an extreme example of the arbitrariness of academic hiring and firing.
But what really struck me, when I read the Chronicle's coverage, was the following:
In another era, KC Johnson might have been a monk, cloistered away in some book-lined retreat. Instead, he lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. It's just him, his mattress on the floor, his sofa with missing cushions, and his desk. He often works till 2 a.m., sleeps for four hours, and starts all over again.
Mr. Johnson lives, in the words of his graduate-school mentor, a "puritanical" life. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't eat meat, and isn't in a relationship. He has just one hobby outside work: running.
And I wonder: is this degree of asceticism what one has to do to be the ideal scholar? Most of us allow ourselves more than four hours of sleep. Most of us find it necessary to have some interests besides our work, some pleasures that aren't connected to teaching and research. If we're lucky, though, the teaching and research are compelling in their own right, and this (together with a romanticized image of the solitary, otherworldly scholar-type -- like Milton's Il Penseroso), I think, is what leads to the asceticism. I'm the last to deny that the pursuit of scholarship can be a pleasure in and of itself; but should it be the only pleasure in one's life? Should it crowd out all others? Should we pour all our energies into loving our scholarship rather than loving other people -- become monks, in other words? Kenneth Mostern points out in "On Being Postacademic" (which I've cited before) that academics are often miserable because of the corrosive effects of a bad job market, and its attendant restrictions on geographic location, on our love lives. Other people have commented on this as well; ambivalent imbroglio sums up why "relationships are hell" for dual-academic-career couples, and Dorothea Salo's Straight Talk about Graduate School offers some concrete examples. She comments, "A few people really do personify the Romantic ideal [of the driven, obsessed scholar]." KC Johnson sounds like one of them. But for every Johnson, I'm willing to bet there are a hundred others who don't personify the ideal, and for them, the monastic lifestyle isn't likely to lead to happiness.
I worry about this, I suppose, because I have monastic tendencies myself, and if I don't make active efforts to counter them I tend to hole up in the library and avoid contact with other people or outside interests of any kind. Which is sometimes a good thing (I'm one of those people who get cranky and miserable without "alone time"), but it's easy to carry too far. Some of the time I relish being a solitary seeker after knowledge, and sometimes I find it deeply lonely. When I realized that I was increasingly finding it lonely rather than fulfilling, I also realized I had to get out.